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Car reviews - Land Rover - Defender - range

Our Opinion

We like
The ability to buy new and original is rare, world-leading off-road ability intact but with comfort, refinement and on-road range significantly improved over predecessor, towering reputation and durability
Room for improvement
Still very a Cold War Era vehicle in terms of packaging, lacks passive safety and refinement

15 Nov 2007

MOVE over, New Mini. Beat it, New Beetle. And don’t even try, new Fiat 500.

For some people, post modern is so over. Original is in.

When talking ‘cars’, only Land Rover’s daftly named Defender has the years under its belt to oblige – Morgan and occasional AC Cobra aside.

The seemingly immortal 4WD has purpose-built written all over it, and pioneer imprinted in its psyche. This is why over 25,000 are sold each year.

But, for good or for bad, there is no escaping the age of this sexagenarian SUV.

Beyond the Vera Lynn-era styling, it is in the way that you step up into the cabin via a narrow door aperture that feels like you’re climbing into a tree house.

And how can you not notice sunvisors that don’t swivel to the side, front seats that won’t slide back far enough to comfortably accommodate long legs, an alarming lack of airbags, or how you end up seated up against the side of the cabin, pounding it with your shoulder and/or knee with every sideways movement?

Then there is the lack of footwell space for second and third-row passengers, power mirrors, rear-door electric windows, and face-level side vents on the dashboard (although the quartet in the centre do a fine job and even reach the second row of passengers).

Don’t worry though. You do get to enjoy wind noise, road noise, body pitching at speed and lack of seat support after a while.

And despite the implementation of a new dashboard that did indeed not squeak or rattle once while at our disposal, that flat windscreen is still pretty much in your face.

Old vehicles. They sure don’t make them like they used to. But then, when it comes to the Defender, Land Rover hasn’t sat completely idle either.

That dash is now far more contemporary. The packaging does not impede front seat occupants’ feet anymore. And Discovery-sourced instrumentation that is simple, clear and informative seems stunningly contemporary in this old workhorse.

Indeed, sitting in the middle or back row of the 110 Wagon with the stadium seating and ceiling-mounted side windows to lift your spirits, you can now imagine that you are travelling in the rear of an earlier-generation Discovery.

The ride is remarkably accommodating over an incredibly wide range of surfaces, which is extremely impressive for something so massively capable off-road.

Perhaps unexpectedly then, the Defender 110 wagon can be optioned up to be a good seven seater, thanks to the all-new forward facing twin seats that – again lack of footwell space aside – turn out to be better than most rival SUV/wagon efforts, offering comfort and easy accessibility as a result of access availability via the swing-open tailgate.

But then, once you clamber out again, those tiny tail-lights and slab-sided body work hark back to a long-gone era.

Thankfully for Land Rover, 21st Century travel is only a few showroom steps away in the form of a Freelander, Discovery, Range Rover Sport or Vogue.

The Defender’s AWOL automatic gearbox, cruise control, and leather upholstery (never mind heated seats and satellite navigation) are enough to separate the Toorak from the tractor.

However, this doesn’t mean that the Defender is totally the same old four-door 110 wagon or 130 cab-chassis it has been since the last major change occurred in the late 1990s.

Current owner Ford has seen fit to fix it with its own 2.4-litre turbo-diesel engine that, when combined with a new gearbox, revised clutch and much more sound-deadening material, makes the old mud-plugger much better to drive than before.

While you will not stand up and sing about its performance or refinement, it does inject the geriatric with adequate power and plenty of torque availability throughout the rev range.

And the new six-speed manual magically makes cruising on the highway bearable – and even pleasant. Now you are left to ponder to the barn-door aerodynamics and roly-poly action of the body in strong crosswinds or through fast curves.

But grand touring is definitely not what a Defender is all about now.

Low-range and diff-lock capabilities are improved, while traction control on the 110 model further enhances a real off-road giant, aided by outstanding wheel articulation coupled with remarkable comfort and stability over ridgy didge rough stuff, thanks to the long-travel coil suspension. It’s tough as nails too. We came away in awe.

Some 4WD-focussed journalists at the launch were convinced that the Defender is as capable off-road as the equally monstrously capable new Jeep Wrangler (although not the specialised Rubicon version, which is unbeatable for an off-the-shelf 4WD).

During our drive program several people asked how the latest Defender stacks up, which served as a timely reminder that this grandmother-of-all-SUVs is as much an emotive – and even fanatical – purchase as it is a practical one.

And why not, since it is the last truly English, pre multi-national mainstream production vehicle you can buy new, from a country that – at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 – exported more vehicles than any other.

So the bottom line is this: All the changes improve the old Land Rover in areas that it most urgently needed them – namely on-road performance and refinement, and in-car comfort – and at absolutely no cost to ability, functionality or originality. Or, if you like, more of the same, but only better.

If, on the other hand, you cannot or will not put up with all the myriad of age-related limitations that the Defender by design cannot escape from, then stretch to a Discovery instead.

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